Fukushima: Sunday-only Cafe Brings Bustle Back to Disaster-Affected Town

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akiko Aoki, left, talks with residents at a cafe that is only open on Sundays in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture.

A cafe that only operates on Sundays has opened in the town of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, where recovery from the nuclear disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011, progresses at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

People involved in the decommissioning of nuclear reactors and reconstruction work are seen walking along the town’s streets on weekdays, but the atmosphere changes completely on weekends.

Called “Nichiyo cafe cha cha cha,” the cafe is run by members of a local nonprofit organization and shares the history of the March 11 disaster to help create a little bustle in the town. It is located near JR Tomioka Station and opened at the end of October in the corner of an apartment building, which is located in a residential area with rows of brand-new public housing for disaster victims.

Members of the NPO, which is headed by Akiko Aoki, the former principal of Fukushima prefectural Tomioka High School, serve customers while taking prevention measures against infection with the novel coronavirus.

When the 14-seat cafe opens at 11 a.m., senior citizens, who returned to the area after the disaster, visit the cafe one after another to enjoy coffee and other beverages until it closes at 3 p.m. Keiko Endo, who lives alone in public housing provided for disaster victims, stops by the cafe every Sunday.

“It’s nice to have a place where I can meet my friends after coming back to the area,” Endo said.

Evacuation orders were issued for all residents in the town, which is located about 5.5 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station. The orders were lifted in April 2017 for most of the affected residents, but only about 1,500 people currently live there, or less than 10% of the population before the disaster. Some of the residents are workers involved in reconstruction, and many of the newly built apartments were designed for them.

The town’s only shopping center is crowded on weekdays and its 325-car parking lot is filled at noon. But on weekends, the town becomes completely quiet because many workers, who have families living in other areas, return home on their days off. Therefore, the restaurants around the shopping center are nearly all closed on Sundays.

Aoki established the NPO in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster and has tried to promote connections among the townspeople through such activities as sharing the history of the March 11 disaster. After observing the town’s atmosphere on weekends, she came up with the idea of establishing a place where residents can relax.

The cafe sells a product called sakura tapioca, which was invented by students of Fukushima prefectural Futaba Mirai Gakuen High School in the town of Hirono. The tapioca was inspired by a row of cherry blossom trees seen at night at a popular spot in the town of Tomioka. The students also sometimes help serve customers.

“The cafe has given me a chance to reunite with old friends and meet new people,” Aoki said. “Hopefully, it will serve as a place for relaxation and refreshment, where visitors can experience the atmosphere of the town as it is today.”